Commentary on Ephesians 5:22-33
What does the Bible mean when it says: “The husband is the head of the wife?”
[NOTE: This Post is Part Three in a commentary on “complicated passages about women in ministry.” Be sure to read Part 1 where Peter Haas introduces the key debates on this subject in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 & 1 Timothy 2:11].
Eph. 5:22-33 says “ 22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
First off, there’s a lot of weird theology on marriage that comes from this passage. Many churches talk a lot about the husband being the “Head”… and that’s the key word.
But what does this really mean to be “the Head of the Household?” After all, I’ve heard people justify some of the craziest behavior, based upon these verses.
For example, there are a lot of really controlling husbands who say, “Well, the Bible says, I’M the head of this household, which means… It’s none of your business to ask me about our finances!” I’ve honestly heard this dozens of times over the years.
I like to tell my wife: “the Greek word for head literally means… I get to have the TV remote!” (If I actually said that to my wife, she’d say: “Well, you better learn the Greek word for Sofa cuz that’s where you’re sleepin!”)
On the Other Hand, I’ve heard many Christian wives refer to this verse in order to abdicate their responsibility in their marriage. For example, I once heard a woman say, “Well, HE is the Head… which means: He’s supposed to both initiate AND satisfy every spiritual and romantic need I feel!” (Truth be told, the one woman who said this was so high maintenance, I thought: “If Jesus himself was your husband he would’ve quit!”
In academic hermeneutics, there’s a term called: “Eisogesis” which is the error of “reading into scripture” things that don’t actually exist.
For example, a classic illustration of eisogesis is the idea of Adam and Eve eating an apple. Of course, the Bible doesn’t specify a fruit. Or, as another example, we hear of “Jonah and the Whale – when it actually says it was a “big fish.”
Now, these are silly examples because they don’t have a huge impact on theology. But, Ephesians 5 has been used to justify all sorts of weird and controlling behaviors. So, it begs the question: “What does the Greek word, “Head” really mean?”
People ask me all the time: Does your knowledge of Greek and Hebrew help you read the Bible? For the most part, no. (And don’t tell that to my Bible professors!) Yet, there are a few rare moments where it helps. And this is one of those passages.
For example, the Greek word translated “Head” in this passage is the Greek word Kephale. Of course, the problem with the English word head is that it adds connotations to the Greek word that don’t actually exist in the Greek.
For example, if there was a Greek word for “Tree” and we translated it, “Evergreen” we’re adding to the word in translation. Yes, an “evergreen” is a tree. But it may not be the tree that the apostle Paul had in mind. And the same thing is true for Kephale. It’s unfair to project the concepts of control or hierarchy into this word.
For example, If Paul wanted to say that Husbands “Have authority Over” wives, he probably would have used the Greek word, arche. And why? Because “arche” means “head” in a controlling and authoritative sense. It’s interesting that Paul didn’t use this word.
Also, if Paul intended this verse to be about “husbands controlling their wives,” there are far better words he would have likely used, such as the Greek word, “Oiko’-despot’ays,” which directly means “ruler of the house.” But instead, Paul used a far less “authoritarian” word in Kephale. Why?
Keep in mind, Kephale can be used to refer to a “physical head” as in, “You chopped off my head.” But metaphorically, it means, “pre-immanent point,” such as, “the headwaters of the Mississippi.” Or, it could also refer to the tip/head of a spear.
Thus a “spear-head” is a Kephale. It’s not “in charge of” the rest of the spear. But it certainly affects the shaft.
So, it’s like a “point-person”… Like Adrian Peterson, the current running back of the Minnesota Vikings, is the Kephale! He’s not the owner of the Vikings. He’s not the Coach (i.e., an authority). But he’s pre-eminent in that he’s the spark… (or he’s the curse) – But this doesn’t necessitate control.
Thus, the kephale was used to describe the part of the army that was “first into battle – the first to sacrifice.” And this makes a lot more sense in the context of what Paul was saying: Husbands should be like Christ: be the first to sacrifice. Be an initiator of righteousness.
And keep in Mind: when this was written, women were viewed like African American slaves in the 1700’s. Frankly, they were treated like dogs. They were considered material possessions. As I’ve mentioned in other essays, Socrates once said: “To be a woman is a divine punishment since a woman is half-man, half-animal.”
Women were generally uneducated. In fact, an educated woman was even considered a liability in some circles. You couldn’t marry-off educated women very easily. Thus, it compounded the stereotype that women were poor dumb decision makers.
In fact, Hellenistic culture viewed women so poorly that, if you happened to give birth to a second child (who was female), you were generally expected to put her to death via infanticide. One study on ancient Hellenistic culture found that roughly 94% of couples having a second daughter chose to put them to death rather than raise them. And if a Hellenistic couple did have a daughter, they would generally marry her off to a man somewhere between 8 and 13 years old!
But here’s my point today: If you understand the cultural context that Paul is speaking to, one could even argue that Paul is actually elevating the value of women in this passage.
Certainly, it may not seem flattering to read, “Wives submit to your husbands;” but, in the full context, Paul is instigating a pretty radical new approach to marriage.
For example, Christ taught in Mark 10 that true leadership is all about servanthood. For example, in Mark 10 we read the story where James and John asked Jesus if they could sit on the left and right hand of Christ when they all got to heaven. And Christ said: You guys are missing the whole concept of leadership. He said: the Gentiles always see leadership as an “authoritative control system.” In other words, it’s a hierarchy: “Who gets to control others – to literally ‘lord over’ the others?” But Christ said: Heaven’s system isn’t about control. (After all, there’s only One person who’s really in control). Rather, in heaven it’s about who sacrifices and serves the most. Thus, if you want to be “great,” you’ve got to let go of control-systems and be a servant leader” Mk 10:44.
And in a similar way, I believe, Paul was emphasizing the same theme: Husbands, you’ve got to be like Christ! You’ve got to be like the ultimate servant leader – the kephale.
In some ways, it’s actually kind-of ironic that some people interpret this Ephesians passage as advocating the very hierarchical control system that Christ and Paul were subverting. And please understand: This is my deduction of a complicated passage. You don’t have to agree. And there are many men and women who do take a more authoritarian interpretation. And many of them seem to get a long quite fine.
But I find it pretty hard to see this passage as setting up a hierarchy: “Women submit to men” when only a few verses up he says: Men must submit to women too. Eph.5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ!” That includes everyone! In fact, that’s the whole point of this passage which is: “serve one-another.”
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of Complementarian expositions of this passage. And it always seems like they want to stretch this passage to say more than it does.
For example, theologian Wayne Grudem goes into all sorts of details around the word Kephale – as though, winning the argument by “lexicographal exhaustion” somehow trumps the immediate context of what Paul was saying.
Once again, good hermeneutics demands that
(1). The immediate context of a word should be weighed as heavily as its lexicographal etymology: For example, imagine if I wrote the phrase: “Dude, that was so sick!” If you weren’t a native speaker of English, you might interpret the slang word “sick” to mean: “to be afflicted with ill health.” You could quote a million dictionaries and medical journals that substantiate your claim and still be wrong. But, if you knew that I was a teenage girl, you might interpret “sick” to mean, “amazing.” However, if you knew I was a skateboarder, you might interpret “sick” to mean, “physically difficult.” If we were on an bumpy airplane, and we just saw someone vomit into a tiny barf-bag with skill, you might interpret “sick” in all three ways!
In other words, we have to know the perlocutionary intent of the Apostle Paul. And frankly, this isn’t possible for us. We have to bring our assumptions to the text whether we like it or not. And only arrogant people are going to pretend they don’t bring filters to this text.
(2). Secondarily, the thematic context should also be considered as important, if not more important than the lexicography. I.e., Even if Paul wrote the Greek word Kephale with an authoritarian intent to it, it still wouldn’t negate the whole context of the passage which is, Eph.5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.” In other words, Paul is essentially saying: “Everyone! Stop being bossy, demanding and entitled. Christ laid down his rights and died for you.“
“Submit to one another” requires that both parties defer to one another. Yet, somehow we’re supposed to believe that verse 22 trumps the previous? Suddenly, we’re supposed to interpret verse 22 as a universal design of God for female subservience before the creation of the world, yet disregard verse 21 as having the same idea behind it? I simply don’t see why a person MUST interpret this passage to mean that.
Now, if you want to believe such an interpretation, I’ll respect your right to obey your own conscience. But please, don’t be arrogant enough to say that Paul’s perlocutionary intent is obvious when it’s not.
Now, is it possible that God designed men to be over women in his eternal design? Sure. But, it definitely wouldn’t mean that men are more gifted at everything – merely more accountable.
I believe that God will inevitably ask specific people to give account for other people (see Hebrews 13:17). I.e., He will hold certain people as more responsible than other people. He does indeed have a flow chart. So, I can empathize with believers who interpret this passage as giving us this flow chart. I am not taking an extreme egalitarian position that eliminates gender and/or flow-charts of accountability.
Yet, I also see hundreds of married couples abusing this passage – to avoid dealing with deeper issues. For example, I’ve met a lot of insecure men who refuse to listen to their brilliant wives under the pretense of this passage. I’ve met a lot of women leaders who bury their leadership gifts and pull back into their comfort zones saying: “Well… I’m not supposed to lead. I’m not the Kephale.” And thus, thousands of brilliant ministries are aborted using bad interpretations.
Whenever this passage is brought up in the context of marital tension, it’s usually being abused. For example, I once did marriage counselling with a couple who had terrible communication skills. But instead of sharpening and growing their skills, they used this passage to create segregation instead of integration. The husband “put her in her place.” She stopped communicating her true feelings on this topic. And not surprisingly, a few years later, they were divorced.
So, I like to remind couples: “Don’t use ‘flow chart solutions’ or gender theology to procrastinate your marriage problems.” I mean, technically, according to scriptures, you are “One Flesh;” thus, act like it! Indeed, the most destructive thing you could do is use this passage to “revert back to two people” – pretending to be one.
Remember: “[Christ] came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many” Mk 10:45. The same is true theologically. Christ-likeness can quickly be observed based on how people apply their theology. Ladies, if somebody beats you up using this passage, just remind yourself: “they missed the whole point of the passage.”
FOR FURTHER STUDY:
Read Part 1: Commentary on 1 Cor. 14; or, Part 2 on 1 Tim 2:11ff